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Valerie Phillips: Food Network star lets Utah fans in on some of his secrets

"I've never been to Salt Lake before, and I'm thrilled to be here," said George Duran, star of two Food Network TV programs "Ham on the Street" and "The Secret Life of. ... "

Duran was in town last weekend for the Deseret Morning News Fall Home Show, where he did cooking demonstrations and emceed a "Utah's Best Chef'" contest Friday night.

Since I was there as a judge for the "Best Chef" competition, we were able to chat for a few minutes before and after the contest.

Duran kept the audience entertained during the event, where four local chefs had an hour to cook a salad, appetizer and main dish from the ingredients supplied in the kitchens. Duran presided over the controlled chaos of chopping, slicing, mixing and frying done by the chefs — Hans Cluff of Market Street Grill University, Robert Valaika of Shabu, John Simpson of Culinary Concepts and Kevin Donovan of Log Haven.

Duran added a twist by requiring that the chefs incorporate three ingredients from a "mystery box" opened just before they started cooking — hot dogs, beer and potato chips.

"Those are the three ingredients that seemed to inspire me when I was just learning to cook," he said.

The job of declaring a winner fell to Bryan Woolley, who does a daily cooking segment on KUTV's noon news; Romina Rasmussen, owner of Les Madeleines bakery and winner of last year's chef showdown; and me.

I'd just finished writing today's story on root vegetables, and it was an interesting coincidence to see the many ways the chefs incorporated parsnips and turnips in their dishes.

And it was fun to see their innovative ways with the "mystery ingredients." Hot dogs were studded with figs, skewered or used in a salad instead of prosciutto. A lone potato chip was perched on top of a dish as a garnish, and other potato chips were crushed into crispy coatings for shrimp and salmon. The beer was used in sauces and simmering risotto.

John Simpson of Culinary Concepts was declared the winner, but let me add that the point spread between all four chefs was very, very close.

During the cooking I marveled at how the chefs tossed those saute pans full of food with a flick of the wrist, never letting any food fly out of the pan. Woolley advised me that I, too, can master this trick of showmanship — just fill a saute pan with salt and practice over a garbage can long enough.

Showmanship is something that Duran obviously has mastered, too. He majored in communications at New York University, had a radio talk show and hosted shows for the Latin music TV station HTV. In 2002, he moved to Paris to attend culinary school. While there, he hosted a show on France's Cuisine TV.

Duran told me that he went to culinary school so he could combine his love of food with his entertainment savvy — and that's just what he did. His show "Ham on the Street" takes a light-hearted look at food.

When asked how he'd advise other aspiring TV chefs, he said, "Well, you've got to have a personality, that's for sure, in order to get people to watch you. But there's only one Emeril, so you've got to be yourself."

He said his father was always asking when he was going to do something serious. "Well, now I'm doing it. 'The Secret Life of. ...' is kind of like the History Channel for food."